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Italy: Ice cream meets culture

The key to a successful holiday in Tuscany with toddlers? Make time each day for a trip to the gelateria. Jason Bennetto explains

The biggest problem for a family with young children holidaying in Tuscany is the ice cream. There are the usual dilemmas about which bit of jaw-dropping scenery to stop and gawp at, making sure you don't miss out on any of the stunning medieval, hill-top villages, finding the restaurant with the most delicious menu in the most perfect square, and which Italian family/stylish young man/waiter makes the most fuss of your adorable kids.

But these choices are nothing to the issue of ice cream, and which of the zillions of mouth-watering flavours, colours, and wafers should you choose for your daily fix. By the end of a week of testing my five-year-old daughter, Robyn, gave her vote to a combination of double chocolate and coconut. Lowena, aged two, favoured crushed berry strawberry, while my wife fell for a triple-scoop grapefruit, peach and melon. If pressed, I would have to take to my desert island a vat of sorbet made with the local crisp dry white wine.

Ice cream in Italy also has another purpose: routine. After picking up our hire car at Pisa airport and driving the 30 miles south-east to our villa, our days quickly established a pattern. After breakfast, it was into the pool to splash in the August sunshine while gazing at the surrounding hillsides. At about 11am the heat forced a retreat inside.

An hour later it was a dash into the hire car and whack on the air-conditioning. Drive for about 30 minutes to a hill-top town. Spend 15 minutes looking for a restaurant. Eat wonderful meal while making appreciative noises about quality of food and drink and ask why can't they do this in Britain.

Leave restaurant and locate best gelateria, followed by "the ice-cream dilemma". About 20 minutes of culture. Return to baking car, then villa and pool at 4.30pm. As the light softens you can combine water gymnastics with watching swifts swirl in the air before swooping to take beakfuls of water from the pool.

The children then watch a DVD while the parents (actually the father) starts hitting the booze and preparing a simple Italian meal from the amazing fruits/vegetables/cheeses/ sliced meats bought from a local supermarket. Dinner on the veranda. Repeat.

We had the added advantage of our incredibly friendly Italian neighbours, Marina and Loriano Salvadori, who turned out to be the owners of the villa we were staying in. During one conversation I agreed, with some trepidation, to their family cooking our family an evening meal.

My normal reaction to this kind of offer is to refuse and avoid the worry and potential embarrassment of having to eat with a bunch of strangers. But in a rush of daredevil holiday adventure, I agreed.

I'm so glad I did. At 7pm Mrs Salvadori and her mother arrived with a huge dish of seafood pasta, so good my picky daughters even ate some. This was followed by courgettes, potatoes, aubergine, and prawns deep-fried in a crisp batter. The next course was the most delicious chicken I have ever tasted. A whole bird - formerly one of the free-range fowl running around the front of our villa - slowly roasted in olive oil and fresh herbs. The meal was finished off with cream caramel, served with a pot of dark sticky sauce.

Our favourite (and nearest) town was Volterra, praised by D H Lawrence (whose favourite ice cream flavour is rumoured to have been pistachio) as a place that "gets all the wind and sees all the world - a sort of inland island". Built on a high plateau enclosed by volcanic hills midway between Siena and the sea, it has escaped the tourist hordes. I would recommend a lunch in the central square of Piazza dei Priori, followed by a short stroll to the Gelateria Artigianale, at Via Gramsci 3, for dessert.

San Gimignano, with its skyline of 12th- and 13th-century towers, entertains swarms of day-trippers. But it does produce Tuscany's finest ice cream. The Gelateria di Piazza, at della Cisterna 4, is the place to go and it is there that among the award-winning ices you will find the white-wine sorbet known as vernaccia.

Taking children to Tuscany is fine if they like looking at sunflowers, olive groves, vines, fascinating churches, beautiful squares and unspoilt towns; if they enjoy delicious food and drink, and the sun. But if they don't, access to a pool and - of course - a gelateria, is an absolute must.

The author travelled as a guest of James Villa Holidays (0870-085 0722; james villas.co.uk). It offers seven nights at the Il Chiassale, Volterra, villa near Pisa, Tuscany, from £399 for a week's rental of the property. It can also arrange flights and car hire: flights from Stansted start from £68 per person and car hire costs from £159 per week

Our alternative

New this year, To Tuscany (020-7193 7782; to-tuscany.co.uk) is offering Bardeggiano, a complex of eight villas and apartments with shared pool on a hilltop close to Colle di Val d'Elsa, within reach of Florence and Siena. A week in May starts from £525 for a villa sleeping four. It's just one of 200 properties offered by the company in the region.